When such high-caliber observers as Joseph Nye, Jr., ("Redefining the National Interest," July/August 1999) and Edward Luttwak ("Give War a Chance") call on the United States to scale back its humanitarian intervention in places of low strategic importance, they get attention. Although they use sharply different arguments, both scholars would have the West curtail its tendency to intervene in other people's wars. Unfortunately, their discussions muddle the long-overdue dialogue on U.S. national interests and the proper policy toward peace operations.

Luttwak's essential argument -- that most forms of outside intervention actually postpone peace and perpetuate war, making it better to "let minor wars burn themselves out" -- is seductive. So, too, is Nye's appeal for raising the bar on humanitarian interventions and keeping America's strategic eye focused on higher-priority interests. His is a plea not to squander unique military and political capital on lower-order conflicts. Like Luttwak's argument, Nye's claims could be persuasive, especially as the election season puts the Clinton administration's proclivity for frequent, political use of military power under scrutiny.

The sad thing about the apparent convergence of Nye's and Luttwak's views is that both miss the real point. It is the actual record of U.S. peace operations during the 1990s that is most worthy of criticism, not the inherent merit of using American power -- in all its forms -- to support regional stability and manage conflict. How various U.S. "national interests" relate to one another is more important than the debate between an expansive "Clinton doctrine" and more restrictive ones. Recent American policy has too often succeeded in discrediting worthy ideas, institutions, and principles.

MOVING PAST YOUR ABC'S

Nye is uncomfortable about the ease with which a "C list" humanitarian issue like Kosovo managed to "migrate" to the "B list" of national interests that merit the urgent use of military force. Critical of the U.S. diplomacy that forced Clinton into a test of wills with Slobodan Miloševic, he cautions against responding to "mediagenic" humanitarian crises that stir public passions. He cites cases of real genocide -- such as the Holocaust and the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda -- in arguing that the term has become "trivialized," letting the United States be seduced into wars of self-determination and ethnic conflict. The bottom line for Nye is to confine U.S. military action against "C list" challenges to legitimate cases of genocide and those where strong national interests (beyond purely humanitarian concerns) are present.

No serious participant in the debate argues for the United States as globocop. It cannot intervene against all ethnic cleansing (or pursue an "anti-son-of-a-bitch policy," as Charles Krauthammer puts it). But Nye's effort to segregate neatly a few "hard" cases from the generalized bulk of conflicts in transitional and emerging regions does not stand up well. The "C list" (Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti) includes the hard case of appalling genocide in Rwanda, as Nye himself recognizes. It includes Somalia, where much of Africa's current travails began in 1993 when American statecraft lost the will and the way to lead, resulting in an unbroken string of contagion effects as far south as Angola and as far west as the two Congos. The West's failure in Rwanda was the strategic child of its failure in Somalia.

Nye's "C list" also includes the conflicts in two parts of the former Yugoslavia. Only when viewed in a vacuum could they represent "minor wars"; they are actually parts of the same rotting corpse that threatens the security of southeastern Europe. The Western response has been a piecemeal acquisition of de facto protectorates, rather than a holistic approach that would reform the political structure of the Balkans. On closer inspection, then, four of Nye's five "C list" cases are constituents of larger regional security instabilities, not unlike the nuclear crises on the Korean Peninsula and in South Asia. Haiti, the final "C list" case, can be viewed as either a challenge to Washington's democracy project or a classic case of the nation's interest in preventing others' traumas from becoming its own.

Mismanaging the complex security issues of unstable regions, even when they are not of "A list" strategic weight, has a high cost. But contrary to Nye, it is not possible to compartmentalize the globe and wall off the strategic slums. Regional crises exist, they get worse when left unattended, and they have a way of imposing themselves on the Western agenda through humanitarian activism or concerns over terrorism, criminal business networks, failed states, ecological disaster, and global health crises.

Clearly, Nye's "A list" is closely related in practice to his "C list." After all, the "A list" comprises not only America's obvious strategic interests in Russia, China, and Japan, as well as its alliances and global trade and investment, but also its inherent interest as the world's leading status quo power in "preventing disorder beyond our borders." Like the British empire in the nineteenth century, the United States has an interest in stronger international institutions and strengthened norms for advancing -- with no apologies -- its national interests. Preventing disorder means sustained U.S. leadership in peacekeeping and diplomatic initiatives, as well as in confronting proliferation threats. We cannot effectively address Nye's "A list" if we imagine that the "C list" is a separate universe. "C list" problems threaten "A list" interests; if that makes us modern imperialists, as some charge, so be it.

WAR AND PEACE

Luttwak, on the other hand, cogently laments the fact that we have forgotten the "paradoxical logic" of war, the only useful function of which is to bring peace by annihilating one side or exhausting it through attrition. Modern Western and U.N. diplomacy has prevented wars from running "their natural course." Imposed cease-fires and armistices or the deployment of observers and peacekeepers make the conflict comfortable, giving warring sides a breather -- before they regroup and re-equip for the next round. Luttwak believes that by not allowing nature to take its course in the former Yugoslavia, the level of suffering has been increased and real peace postponed.

Compelling as his argument may be, Luttwak is incorrect about the "natural" consequences of contemporary warfare. The battlefield by itself does not necessarily lead to durable peace except in unusual circumstances: when the victor wins overwhelmingly and then rigorously assimilates the loser, who gets little support from any quarter; when the victor is atypically magnanimous in co-opting or sharing with the loser; or when the weaker side has the rare foresight to sue pre-emptively for a deal. These are not common conditions in the modern era. Losers and victims are less isolated and have more friends, enabling their causes to be sustained and reopened. Internal wars have qualities that tend toward stalemate, not peace: Chechen and Dagestani warlords began battling Russians in the 1830s; Sudan has been at war for most of the past 45 years; Kashmir and Sri Lanka fester more or less on their own with rare bursts of external "meddling"; Angola's factions notoriously reject or scuttle peace initiatives. The stubborn reality is that war in such places serves the interests (however defined) of those elites who choose to fight them.

Rather than a fight to the finish -- which would come at horrendous cost to civilians and would threaten a range of American interests -- regional crises need competent intervention (and not just of the military sort) appropriate to local conditions. A foreign policy of prudent activism will best advance America's global interests in an age of uncertain norms, messy transitions, and expanding challenges to political order. The United States will need strong political, economic, and military tools to address this agenda. And it will need all the partners and allies it can mobilize to build ad hoc coalitions of the willing, to make U.N. peace operations effective (where that is the appropriate approach), and to mount imaginative, purposeful diplomatic initiatives of the kind that have served well in the past.

Competent foreign intervention has been effective at times -- in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Central America, certain parts of the former Soviet Union, and various regions in Africa, for example. But Luttwak is right to go after egregious cases of inept meddling. There is no excusing the U.N. Security Council's tolerance of Serb outrages in Bosnia, which discredited and demoralized U.N. peacekeepers trying to carry out mandates designed and approved in Washington and other key capitals. Nothing can explain away the human consequences of the West's appalling refusal to act in Rwanda or its decision to establish refugee camps in eastern Congo under the effective domination of genocidal butchers. But these are not examples of "interventionism" -- they are examples of incompetence.

Chester A. Crocker is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace and James R. Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University.

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